Mikhail Gorbachev: The Architect of Perestroika

6 mins read

By Yan Yusef

IT IS HARD TO DISAGREE that the past century was the most eventful one in modern history. The world has seen too many ups and downs over the past hundred-plus years. Two world wars, the emergence of fascism, the rise and fall of the Nazi regime in Germany, the rise and fall of the dictatorial regimes of Franco and Salazar, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and numerous revolutions. And, of course, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, which is the focus of this article. To many, the collapse of the USSR did not come as a big surprise, given the state of the world economy and their domestic political situation at the time. Nevertheless, the reactions of people around the world were very different. Some rejoiced and hoped that the end of the totalitarian regime meant the beginning of a new era of democracy in already separate and sovereign countries. Others, aware of the future economic crisis, were less optimistic.

A few cried in despair, not knowing how to live further. The current Russian President Vladimir Putin, for instance, said that the collapse of the USSR was the “biggest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”. However, how did it come to this? It is quite reasonable to say that the wheels were set in motion after Stalin’s death when at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU), first Secretary Nikita Khrushchev publicly condemned Stalin. Thus, he cut off a finger of the totalitarian regime by depriving it of the cult of the leader. However, the real changes came with the last General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee – Mikhail Gorbachev. The topic of Perestroika and the personality of Gorbachev himself are incredibly interesting. What role did he play in Perestroika? What kind of politician was he, and did he really destroy the USSR? 

“The real changes came with the last General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee – Mikhail Gorbachev.”

Before moving on to the process of Perestroika itself and Gorbachev’s role in it, it is necessary to learn more about him. Former Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko once spoke of Gorbachev as a man “with a sweet smile but with iron teeth”. He was born in Stavropol Krai in 1931 – the era of collectivization, hunger, and horror. He joined the Komsomol (youth division of the Communist Party) at 15. Thanks to his merits, he entered the law school of Moscow State University. This educational background set him apart from the Khrushchev-Brezhnev era elites, who often had technical training. One of the facts that played a certain role in Gorbachev’s political compass is that he shared his student accommodation with the Czech Zdeněk Mlynář  – a future politician in Czechoslovakia and one of the major figures of the Prague Spring. The Prague Spring, often described as “socialism with a human face”, advocated a less rigid form of socialism than the Soviet model. Their continued communication through the years after university is evidence of their influence on each other.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was accompanied by his wife in traveling to many Western countries, such as Italy and Spain. While this might seem an insignificant detail, this is not the case. It is no coincidence that in the USSR, one had to obtain several approvals for travel. Of course, this is connected with a much better standard of living in Western countries that an ordinary Soviet citizen would not typically encounter. Inevitably, after his upbringing in the Stavropol Krai, Italy, and France were a cultural shock for Gorbachev, and it cannot be denied that this also influenced him and his future liberalization policies. While we cannot fully know Gorbachev’s inner thoughts, his travels and exposure to the Prague Spring undoubtedly influenced his perspective. 

Many years later, Gorbachev became a symbol of Perestroika. The word “Perestroika” was first uttered in 1986. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the operative word was “acceleration”. There was no talk of Perestroika, directly translated from Russian as “reconstruction”. Until 1986, the main concept was the acceleration of socio-economic development. Nobody was talking about private property or changes in the political system. However, Gorbachev, in a very pragmatic manner, cited some numbers and statistics showing that everything in the USSR was not as good as many people were accustomed to believing then. Gorbachev began to offer solutions to existing economic problems while not going beyond the framework of Soviet ideology, which is very important to note. Gorbachev often spoke about the importance of accelerating scientific and technological progress. This emphasis on acceleration would later reveal the core issues within the Soviet system, but that will be explored further.

In May 1986, the so-called “measures to strengthen the fight against unearned income” were adopted. Unearned income, often linked to corruption, essentially encompassed any income not derived from traditional labor, a concept typical in market economies. At that time, the changes did not yet seem “radical”. However, in hindsight, these were already small but confident steps towards big changes. 

In 1987, Boris Yeltsin delivered his famous speech in which he criticized Gorbachev for the slow implementation of reforms. This had an incredible resonance, and he was removed from his duties. The moment of confrontation between the party elite and Gorbachev’s unstable position came. It appears he did not realize that he was already losing. After all, he would never be able to fully unite with the conservatives because they wanted to return everything to the way it was before Gorbachev, and he would not be able to unite with the liberals either because Yeltsin, who was an even bigger reformer, has already taken his place.

“Everyone in his place must do his job conscientiously and honestly. That’s what Perestroika is all about.” — Mikhail Gorbachev

The party slowly but surely began to reject Gorbachev’s reforms. He felt that he needed a new foothold. In 1988, he became chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. This was a council, not a party position. Gorbachev was counting on the fact that if he were removed as General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, he would remain head of the council. He became closer to the council but tried not to identify himself with one group. It’s good when different groups fight among themselves, and you are not on one of the sides but above them. However, it was no longer enough to save him. He did not succeed in being above them, his place was between them. 

One of the most radical economic reforms of the time was the 1988 Cooperatives Act, which authorized private ownership of services, manufacturing, and foreign trade businesses. Why a cooperative? Because the cooperative is perceived as a socialist phenomenon. A cooperative assumes that all participants do not exploit anyone but work and share their earnings. These reforms, and others that followed, revealed Gorbachev’s struggles to manage the escalating economic instability and the broader challenges facing the USSR. Within the USSR, organizations in various republics increasingly sought greater autonomy. At the same time, a horrific Armenian pogrom in Sumgait occurred, resulting in many deaths. The harrowing accounts of civilians desperately calling for help, only to be met with silence from authorities, shocked the Soviet populace, who had long been indoctrinated in the ideal of “friendship of peoples”.

Soviet citizens learned about such occurences precisely because of the glasnost that Gorbachev tried to achieve. The glasnost policy allowed numerous dissidents to be freed, critical publications to start appearing, and the public to learn about the problems facing the whole country. The Soviet people began to discover and mistrust the communist ideology more and more. In 1989, the Communist Party, for the first time, acknowledged an economic crisis, challenging the prevailing belief that socialist systems were impervious to the downturns typically associated with capitalist economies. Gorbachev’s attempts to correct the economic situation by moving the economy into a more market-oriented direction were unsuccessful. The attempt to conclude a New Union Treaty was also unsuccessful. Perhaps back in 1987, this proposal would have been accepted, but considering everything that happened after, it was simply impossible. 

In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR. He met a terrible fate for any politician – no one was interested in him anymore. Gorbachev understood how bad the system was, but it seemed he did not know or understand how to change it. Returning to Gorbachev’s focus on scientific and technological progress, Vadim Medvedev, a member of Gorbachev’s team, noted that addressing the economic problems required a complete overhaul of the political system, including the party’s role. Gorbachev was criticized that he should have started with the reformation of the party, but was it even possible? It is difficult to imagine that anyone would understand this within the party and society.

Years later, in a BBC interview, Gorbachev reflected on the USSR as “his drama”. The words “traitor to the Motherland” are those you can find most frequently in this five-minute interview. In the documentary ”Gorbachev. Heaven”, when confronted with the statement that he is not a hero in Russia, Gorbachev tearfully disagreed. How one views the personality of Mikhail Gorbachev is a personal matter for everyone. He can be hated, can be despised, but to deny his significance in the history of world politics would, quite simply, be a lie. It was Gorbachev’s actions that led to the freedom of the countries of Eastern Europe. His actions played a significant role in the reunification of Germany. No matter what you think of him, he must not be forgotten. Not him, nor the history he created.

By: Yan Yusef

Cover: European Parliament

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